AL DÍA:Traveling the Texas-Mexico Border

3/5/2012, Eric Olson and Chris Wilson of the Mexico Institute are currently driving the  Texas-Mexico border, beginning in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, ending in Brownsville/Matamoros, and blogging along the way.

A few final thoughts on security issues as we wrap up our time on the border.  We spent the last three days of our trip in Laredo, Nuevo Laredo, and along the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Brownsville, and Matamoros, Mexico.

The violence in Mexico along the “Frontera Chica” (from Zapata to Matamores) and in Nuevo Laredo may have diminished slightly in the past few months, but no one seems to think order has been restored.  To the contrary, volatility and violence continue to simmer just below the surface and there is some basis to think things could take a turn for the worse again if the current equilibrium is broken by outside forces (such as the Sinaloa cartel) or Zeta or Gulf leaders are apprehended or killed.

The situation in this area stands in contrast to the dynamics in Ciudad Juarez (CJ) and Tijuana (TJ). The violence in those cities has been driven by multiple competing actors including conflicts between cartels, splinter groups, street gangs, military and law enforcement.  Some of the most severe violence has been associated with local criminal activity including turf battles over local retail drug markets, kidnapping, extortion, and carjacking.  Conversely, the violence in Nuevo Laredo and Frontera Chica region seems more starkly defined by traditional cartel conflicts with defined battle lines and fighting for territorial control.  Someone likened this conflict to WWI.

The Zeta Cartel is built on a more integrated structure demanding loyalty and discipline, and total control of criminal activity in the Frontera Chica region. .  Nuevo Laredo is theirs and anyone seeking to operate independently, or to use their brand name, must pay up or suffer the consequences.  Their control pushes eastward towards Reynosa, and southward towards Monterrey, as well as further southeast towards the Gulf Coast of Tamaulipas and Veracruz.

Despite their fearsome reputation and bloody tactics, there is some evidence that the Zetas have experienced major setbacks as their leadership has either been captured or killed.  An original member of the Zetas and a top leader – Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano – is now believed to be on the run and looking for a way out of the organization.   The Trevino brothers remain a strong force and are in firm control of Nuevo Laredo, but they, too, may be increasingly isolated.

Their former patrons, the Gulf Cartel, likewise control territory in and around Matamoros, westward into Reynosa, and southward along the cost toward Tampico.  The CDG, as they are known in Spanish, have suffered numerous setbacks and leadership changes in the last two years.

Tragically, as these conflicts continue the presence of Mexican security forces are weak.  Local police forces in Nuevo Laredo, Mier, and Matamoros are mostly non-existent, dissolved for various reasons but largely due to their chronic penetration by organized crime.  In some areas, homicides appear to have declined after police forces where dissolved.

Small contingents of federal police, state police, and larger deployments of the military have been sent to establish order.  In many instances, the state and municipal police are actually deputized military police, a common practice in the early 2000s.  The new governor of Tamaulipas, Egidio Torres, named 11 former generals to head municipal police departments upon taking office on January 1st.  One former general, Manuel Farfán, was named to head the Nuevo Laredo police department and killed barely a month later on a downtown city street.

Not surprisingly, there are differing opinions about the military’s role in the area.  Most people seem grateful for their presence given the extreme violence they’ve experienced the past two years.  Without them, some voiced concern that there would be open warfare.

Others expressed concern that the military is not pursuing an acceptable long term solution.  The military’s presence is dissuasive – reacting quickly to outbreaks of serious violence, and by most accounts capable of effective operations against cartels when utilizing intelligence provided by the U.S.   But, dissuasion and reaction are not long term solutions.  It does not appear there is a specific strategy being implemented that would effectively diminish organized crime’s grip on society, or re-establish long term control in the area.

Additionally, use of the military has been justified as a temporary necessity while civilian law enforcement is built up and capable of resuming its traditional functions.  But it’s difficult to see how this could be on the horizon given that there is no civilian police force in many cities, and the process of creating one is enormously difficult.   For example, the process of identifying recruits and putting them through an extensive training and vetting process is exceedingly difficult when there is almost no confidence in Tamaulipas state institutions.  U.S. money set aside to train Tamaulipas police has been underused given the difficulty of identifying qualified trainees who can pass a rigorous vetting process.

So the hill is steep in Tamaulipas, where the last three governors are under investigation by the federal attorney general’s organized crime unit.  If there is an area of Mexico teetering on the border of failure it could well be Tamaulipas.  Other states experience major conflicts and challenges, but Tamaulipas may be the most desperate.

This raises an interesting political question going forward for the PRI and its presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.  The PRI has never lost political and electoral control of the state, and there is every reason to believe the state will again vote heavily for the PRI in the July presidential election.  But given its sad history of corruption and infiltration by organized crime, what will be the PRI’s response should it re-take the presidency in July, in part on its strength in Tamaulipas.  Would a Peña Nieto government move aggressively to investigate present and former authorities accused of corruption and active participation in illegal activities?  Will Peña Nieto be willing to move against those who put him in office if there is evidence of illegality?  The election may hinge on the Peña Nieto and the PRI’s ability to persuade the Mexican electorate that it will place rule of law over political loyalty.  To do so, would be evidence that the PRI has indeed changed.

Eric L. Olson


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